Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Free Form Comments

Say whatever you want to in the comments to this post -- random, off topic thoughts, ideas, suggestions, questions, recommendations, criticisms (which can be anonymous), surveys, introductions if you have never commented before, personal news, self-promotion, requests to be added to the blog roll and so on. If I forget, remind me. Remember these comments can be directed at all the readers, not just me.

ALSO. You can use this space to re-ask me questions you asked me before that I failed to answer because I was too busy.

AND you can use this space to comment on posts that are old enough that no one is reading the comments threads anymore.

You do not have to have a blogger account or gmail account to post a comment -- you can write a comment, write your name at the bottom of your comment like an e mail, and then post using the "anonymous" option.

WRITING FOR THIS BLOG. If I see a big free form comment that deserves more attention, I will pull it and make it its own post, with a label on the post and on the sidebar that will always link to all the posts you write for this blog. I am always looking for reviews of games, tv, movies, music and books.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #189

[Guest Blogger Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Chris Claremont’s X-Men run. For more in this series, see the toolbar on the right.]

“Two Girls Out to Have Fun”

The most immediately noticeable difference in the nature of the X-franchise once the editorial reins have passed from Louise Simonson to Ann Nocenti is that the latter seems to have encouraged a greater amount of fluidity among the core series, Uncanny, and its main ancillary title, The New Mutants. Whereas the two series had remained admirably (if artificially) independent of each other for the first year and a half of the spin-off’s existence, 1984 brings about a new paradigm, where Claremont seems happy to shuffle subplots back and forth between the two, treating the two monthlies as if they were really just one bi-weekly.

As a result, re-reading Uncanny X-Men issues from this period years later without also reading contemporaneous issues of New Mutants leads to some confusion. On the other hand, I will testify that when one is able and willing to read everything in its proper order, the results are quite satisfying, and at times thrilling.

Uncanny X-Men #189 is NOT one such example. Noteworthy for centering entirely on female characters (the protagonists are, as the title suggests, “two girls” and their antagonist is Selene), the issue nonetheless leaves a lot to be desired. To quickly annotate for anyone not familiar with New Mutants: Selene and Magma both first appeared in an arc running through New Mutants 8-12. Magma is a woman out of time, having grown up in Nova Roma, an anachronistic lost city whose culture, technology and politics were all stuck at the level of the Roman Empire. Selene was a black-magic priestess who lived in Nova Roma, and at some point in the past had slain Magma’s mother as part of a ritualistic sacrifice. Selene was also revealed to actually be an immortal, genuinely as ancient as the original Roman Empire.

Magma left her city in New Mutants 12 to join the titular team, and as was shown in Uncanny #183 and 184, Selene has now abandoned Nova Roma as well, to prey upon the contemporary world. From Uncanny #184 Selene bounces into New Mutants #22, where she connects with Friedrich von Roehm, the member of a religion apparently dedicated to worshipping her. Selene explains that she “require[s] a residence ... preferably one which provides access to wealth and influence.” Which brings us at long last to Uncanny #189, wherein von Roehm and Selene show up at the Club, the latter dressed in the “black queen” outfit last seen during the Dark Phoenix Saga.

With “Two Girls Out to Have Fun,” Claremont is trying to achieve some sort of symbolic level of resonance with the Dark Phoenix material. He first establishes a new wrinkle regarding Rachel’s character: in the opening flashback (which presciently casts an image of “the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center [lying] in ruins” as an emblematic, iconic representation of early-21st-century New York), Claremont reveals that Rachel Summers acted as a “hound,” seeking out and killing mutants on behalf of human masters. “So many died,” she recalls, “because of me.” Claremont is alluding obliquely to Dark Phoenix, who also caused the death of “so many.” Rachel now has deaths to redeem, just like her mother did. When Rachel later is brought into opposition against Selene, it is significant that the latter is wearing Jean Grey’s Hellfire outfit. Claremont is thus pitting two Dark Phoenix avatars against each other. (Note also that both Rachel and Selene are telepathic/telekinetic, just like Jean.)

Ultimately it doesn’t work, because there are no stakes beyond the surface cleverness. Also, Magma and Selene aren’t particularly interesting characters, and Rachel remains downright irritating. It’s frustrating to see Claremont once again sideline the putative stars of the comic in favor of some of his less interesting original creations. The bit with Rogue and Colossus smashing through a wall to save the day only three or four pages from the end -- like a deux ex machina (or deus x-machina) -- has now become so rote that Claremont even has Rogue comment on how often it seems to happen. Issue #188 had gone some way toward re-establishing the series’ focus, but now it’s only one month later and Claremont seems to be spinning his wheels again.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Define the 90s and the 00s in three cultural products each

I am going with TV for everything:

The 90s: Buffy, X-Files, Seinfeld
The 00s: Sopranos, The Wire, Arrested Development

This is how I process the sweep of a decade, and it is obviously idiosyncratic. I would be very interested in how other people do it.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008


We may go on hiatus, just for a little while. Could be as late as Monday. Have fun with the free form comments in the meantime. I expect to continue to update the Twitter feed.

Free Form Comments

Say whatever you want to in the comments to this post -- random, off topic thoughts, ideas, suggestions, questions, recommendations, criticisms (which can be anonymous), surveys, introductions if you have never commented before, personal news, self-promotion, requests to be added to the blog roll and so on. If I forget, remind me. Remember these comments can be directed at all the readers, not just me.

ALSO. You can use this space to re-ask me questions you asked me before that I failed to answer because I was too busy.

AND you can use this space to comment on posts that are old enough that no one is reading the comments threads anymore.

You do not have to have a blogger account or gmail account to post a comment -- you can write a comment, write your name at the bottom of your comment like an e mail, and then post using the "anonymous" option.

WRITING FOR THIS BLOG. If I see a big free form comment that deserves more attention, I will pull it and make it its own post, with a label on the post and on the sidebar that will always link to all the posts you write for this blog. I am always looking for reviews of games, tv, movies, music and books.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

What I've been Playing

by Ping33

[A note from Geoff: I have been playing Star Wars Clone Wars Light Saber Duels and World of Goo for the Wii, but I do not have much to say about them, other than they are both pretty fun.]

Before I talk about what I've been playing, I want to start with what other people have been playing. There was a great story on the gaming blog Kotaku last week about a report from consumer research firm: NetworkedInsights wherein NI compared game sales in October (as determined by the data group NPD) to "Gamer Interactions" (as determined by message board posts, socal networking sites and user generated content sites like YouTube)

The data is most interesting as it shows some real discrepancies between what people are buying and what people are playing.
Four of the games on the "interaction" list represented games which were not in the top 10 in sales, and one (Little Big Planet, which I gushed about earlier) did far better on the Interaction list than it did in sales.

The value of NPD data has been much debated for some time, it only surveys Game Specialist outlets and doesn't include shops like Toys R' Us. and Wal-Mart. As such it skews to the elitist/hard-core market in much the same way as the New York Times Best seller list fails to include Romance Novels and other such "low-brow" "mass-market" books [and Watchmen, by the way] which invariably aren't included because they are primarily sold in Supermarkets and convenience shops. Similarly though, the 'interaction' aspect of NI's survey also skews to the 'hardcore' as it is by it's nature looking at a vocal minority of dedicated, connected people who take their interaction with games beyond the console and actively participate in Internet discussions about their hobby.

So, let's forget that the top 10 purchased list isn't real and that Littlest Pet Shop probably sold 10x more copies than Dead Space, and discuss what we have in front of us.

People LOVE Rock Band and Guitar Hero. I personally don't need my living room cluttered with gigantic plastic instruments but those that do sure seem to get a lot of use out of them. I think Wii Play is an interesting inclusion on the Interaction list as the game is essentially an extra Wii controller with a $5 game thrown in. With that and one other exception (Dead Space), the rest of the Inclusion list contains games with a huge depth of content. Fable II, Fallout 3, Far Cry 2, GTA 4 and Saint's Row 2 are all 'open world' games which can be played for 100s of hours while still providing new experiences. This divergence of sales to interaction and the seemingly high correlation between interaction and depth of content makes me wonder if making higher quality, deeper games isn't shooting the industry in the foot by providing so much quality content that it slows down purchases. I cancelled 2 games I had pre-ordered this fall due to the fact that I didn't think I would have time to play them. I still haven't had time to go back to Fallout 3 because LittleBigPlanet keeps me coming back with the promise of newer and ever more competent user created levels (the new 1.7 update makes it super easy to find the most popular user created levels and I spent several hours yesterday discovering new delights.) Widening out to PC gaming where the World of Warcraft juggernaut seems to be obliterating all comers due to its massive popularity and demands on the player's time we begin to see the future of the Hardcore gaming market. A subscription model where ongoing service charges or regular updates/add-ons subsidize the fact that a single purchase of Grand Theft Auto or World of Warcraft might provide so much entertainment that the consumer won't feel compelled to purchase Midnight Club or Call of Duity when they come out because they are still enjoying the earlier product. On the console side, added downloadable content also provides the benefit of causing gamers not to trade-in completed games as more content is just a few months and $10 away. This in turn keeps new consumers from buying used games and keeps profit rolling into the publishers rather than being sucked up by the retailer.

Of the 5 'deep content interactive' titles I mentioned above: 3 of them (Fable, Fallout and GTA) all have announced massive downloadable add-ins due in the 1st quarter of next year. The Lost and the Damned expansion for GTAIV will likely dwarf all proper game releases in the Month of February, and it too won't show up in the NPD numbers.

All of this relates to what I've been playing as that list primarily consists of LittleBigPlanet which has so much amaizing user generated content I even got sucked into their website viewing movies of all the cool levels I haven't played yet for 20 minutes while trying to write this blog entry.

Check out one of many Batman Levels, a superior Mario inspired one: or the fairy tale inspired Sack and the Beanstalk: simply amazing, and these three are some of the more straight-forward levels out there, as other span the gamut from artistic to inspired to just plain odd.
I'm also playing Chrono Trigger on Nintendo DS. A remake/reissue of a 13 year-old SNES RPG. Which holds up wonderfully, though does waste the touch-screen capability by providing lousy controls rather than using the more ingenious Map-making/note-taking functionality invented by The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass.

And WipEout HD which modernizes and revitalizes a 10-year old franchise with assets repurposed from the PSP WipEout games which are 4 and 2 years old respectively.

I don't mean to indicate that this lengthening shelf-life is a new phenomonon. Chrono Trigger was revolutionary when it was released by being having multiple endings which took a 20-25hr game into the 100s of hours with excessive replayability. In the last 2 generations we've seen the standard slip from 20-25hrs to 12-15 and then again to 8-12. This made sense with the aging demographic of gamers with more disposable income and fewer hours to play factored into the increased budgetary requirements of each successive generation. Now, with the current economic problems I wonder if the value/money ratio will be pushed in the other direction. 80 hours of GTA for $60 and then another $20 for 20 more hours 11 months later is roughly 10x more entertainment for the dollar than a single movie ticket, and just under 20x the value of a $3.99 Marvel comic which takes 10-minutes to read.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Christmas Music

by Scott

[Also check out The AV Club on Christmas stuff that doesn't suck.]

I’m a big fan of the garishness of Christmas; the light displays that make the Vegas strip look positively puritan in comparison, the cringe worthy holiday specials, and, most of all, the music. I’m not talking about the traditional songs of the ‘Silent Night’ variety, my preference is for the purely secular tunes that are so good that Jewish artist like Neil Diamond and Kenny G have been known to ‘lose their religion’ just to record a few of them. And, most of all, the weirder, stranger, and cornier these songs are, the more I like them.

To put this in context, my all time favorite Christmas album (that I have had on cassette since I was 15) is the first ‘A Very Special Christmas’ album. The first in a series of albums recorded to benefit the quite noble cause of The Special Olympics whose ‘all star’ casts could result in some pretty hysterical results… and, occasionally, oddly moving (Bob Seger’s rendition of “Little Drummer Boy” or The Pretenders take on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”)… and, sometimes, even completely appropriate (John Mellencamp’s fiddle driven take on “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” is absolutely perfect). So, here are some of my favorite ‘non-traditional’… and sometimes just flat out odd… holiday tunes. I look forward to hearing some of yours.

First of all, my all time favorite Christmas song is probably “Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home).” I was first introduced to this song through the U2 cover on the afformentioned ‘A Very Special’ Christmas album but, of course, have grown to love the Darlene Love original. What I love about the song is, Christmas or not, it’s such a great pop tune. Originally included on the Phil Spector produced ‘A Christmas Gift For You’ album (which, to my knowledge, is the only Christmas album to make Rolling Stones top 500 albums of all time) this has been a go to secular Christmas tune for years and has been recorded by so many artist over the years that, in fact, it’s sort of become a standard in it’s own right. Also, that Phil Spector production, with it’s chimes and echo, is absolutely perfect for creating that holiday vibe.

My favorite Christmas song as a kid was this version of “The 12 Days of Christmas” that was on a Disney Christmas album (that, yes, was owned on Vinyl). The song itself, is ridiculous enough. The various gifts, especially taken out of the historical context, are completely absurd (I’m also pretty sure that ‘ten lords ‘a leaping’ was excessive back then as well). I kind of suspect that this was actually written by a school teacher as a means of instructing her students memory and how to count backwards. However, what was great about the Disney version was that all of the various characters were given a specific line and Goofy, of course, was given the climactic line about “5 Golden Rings!” but, whenever his turn came around, he would always triumphantly belt “5 Onion Rings!”

I’m pretty sure I wore the record out listening to that one song… also drove my parents nuts.

And now, for the stranger stuff…

“Mistress For Christmas”- Ac/Dc- This is not a Christmas song… it’s just an Ac/Dc song that happens to mention the word ‘Christmas’. Totally inappropriate … which makes it the most appropriate choice for an Ac/Dc Christmas song. My favorite part is Brian Johnson’s jive/blues speak at the intro of “Jingle Bell, Jingle Bell, Jingle all de day.”

“Christmas In Hollis”- Run DMC- I was going to say that this was probably the first Christmas rap songs… but I’m pretty sure that, oddly enough, The Waitresses (of “I Know What Boys Like” fame) hold that honor with “Christmas Wrapping.” It might not be the first but, in my mind, it’s still the best. Also, it is the only ‘original’ Christmas song on the original ‘A Very Special Christmas’ album (all the others are traditional or covers). The line “It’s Christmas time in Hollis, Queens/ Mom’s cooking chicken and collared greens!” makes me smile every time.

“Having a Reggae Christmas”- Bryan Adams- this came out some time in the 80s and had a music video featuring Pee-Wee Herman… because when I think Christmas… I think Paul Reubens and, of course, mellow island rhythms.

“Do They Know It’s Christmas?”- Band Aid- Ok, yes, this song did bring the plight of famine to eyes of the western world and would, eventually, give us Live Aid and, even today, has morphed into the ‘One’ campaign and other organizations dedicated to debt relief but, c’mon, how cheesy is this song? It’s so very 80’s. My friends and I gather around every year to sing the ‘Bono Line’ while doing our best Bono impressions, (sing it with me) “Tonight thank God it’s them Instead of You!”

“Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want To Fight)”- The Ramones- actually, this one isn’t that bizarre; once you get past the novelty of a ‘Punk Rock Christmas Song’, Is it really all that different from something like “Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)” or “Blue Christmas”?

“Step Into Christmas”- Elton John- The phrase ‘Step Into Christmas’ has always really bothered me… for some reason it just makes me think of poo.

“Santa Claus is Coming to Town” – Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band- Ok, this one is totally traditional at this point, but my favorite part of this version, which was recorded live, is Bruce asking Clarence Clemons “you been a good boy this year, practicing real hard so Santa will bring you a new Saxophone?” Absolutely, adorable.

And, of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the David Bowie/Bing Crosby duet on “Little Drummer Boy.”

Now, will somebody please explain Mannheim Steamroller to me?

Sunday, December 21, 2008

David Foster Wallace Commencement Address

My friend Erin sent me a link to this way back in the middle of October and I just now got around to reading it. (Sorry Erin). It is very interesting, but I am still thinking about it, and have not quite yet landed on anything yet. Here is a sample, which you can click on to read the whole thing:

The thing is that, of course, there are totally different ways to think about these kinds of situations. In this traffic, all these vehicles stopped and idling in my way, it's not impossible that some of these people in SUV's have been in horrible auto accidents in the past, and now find driving so terrifying that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive. Or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he's trying to get this kid to the hospital, and he's in a bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am: it is actually I who am in HIS way.

I find myself now also thinking hard about WHY Erin sent me this link. Is it because I was moved by Wallace's suicide, without actually having read anything he had written? He mentions suicide in the speech, which is kind of evil -- the whole thing rings strangely now, because you get the feeling that his chemicals or whatever prevented him from seeing the world the way he suggested it should be seen -- or he did see it that way and there was something terribly overwhelming in the vision? Because it required some awful strength none of us have? Or did she send it to me because she knows perfectly well that I am a bit obsessed with "the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing." Of course I worship all the wrong things, and suffer the results, as Wallace suggests, but he suffered too, obviously.

I do deeply admire that he discusses, at a commencement address, the dreariness of day to day adult life, and attempts to help. That is frankly an amazing gesture.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Curse Words

A long time ago on this blog I quoted Emerson:

What a pity we cannot curse and swear in good society! Cannot the stinging dialect of the sailors be domesticated? It is the best rhetoric, and for a hundred occasions those forbidden words are the only good ones. My page about 'Consistency' would better be written thus: Damn Consistency!

With Deadwood on my TV and Mamet in my bag, I have been thinking more about curse words.

For the generation above mine, and even more so for the generation above that, curse words were really just totally unacceptable. Their claim that the media desensitized my generation to these words seems to me quite right: I can very much remember watching Die Hard as a kid and my friends and I talking about how the word "fuck" was used with awesome frequency: something like 17 times. Wikipedia has the Deadwood pilot using the word 43 times, and the 36 hour series as a whole contains nearly 300 uses of the word fuck -- roughly three times every two minutes.

I am, obviously, discouraged from using curse words in the classroom. The rationale is that as a community college professor, whose students are very often the first in their family to attend college, it is my responsibility "to model the way educated people speak." Of course I see their point -- what David Foster Wallace calls Standard White English (SWE) is the language you need to know to get ahead in most professional environments, and that is the main reasons students are at BMCC -- they are not there pursuing the life of the mind, they are there to make more money. At the same time curse words can be a very powerful in breaking down barriers between myself, and students who feel like college is this massive intimidating thing where you learn "serious" thing above their heads; these are the students who do really well in my class, but then come to me and tell them they are nervous to read Shakespeare because he is so important -- then they discover he has more in common with Hollywood then some kind of super-educated occult secret society of world leaders, or whatever thing it is that they think makes Shakespeare above them. When they hear me speaking intelligently about Shakespeare and using a curse word now and then for emphasis, they see that their day to day lives do not have to be divorced from good literature. I actually very rarely curse in class, and when I do it is usually timed to get their attention with a striking turn of phrase about some poem I think is REALLY good. But I do have a great first week assignment on audience in which I read to them an Onion article entitled "Why Can't I sell Any of these Fucking Bibles." It is an editorial drenched in the most foul language, and I use it to point out that they must always consider audience in their writing -- it is not that it is wrong to curse (the guy in the article admits to being a fantastic auto-parts salesman), you just have to consider what will make sense in whatever situation you are in (cursing is NEVER acceptable in a college essay or when selling bibles).

There is of course, also something quite tricky about the rationale that I need to model the way educated people speak -- I am the guy setting the standard. However I speak, THAT is how educated people speak. Our students may need to sound like BBC broadcasters in their papers (though that is arguable), but I am not sure I want to give them the idea that being educated demands that they TALK like BBC broadcasters, at least not all of the time.

The saturation of curse words in the media has led to something genuinely interesting: the use of curse words as some kind of crazy inheritor of nonsense poetry. The word "expletive" comes from a the Latin word that means "empty" -- originally "expletive" referred to those words used in poetry only to finish the metrics of a line -- words that added only to the sound, and not at all to the sense of the passage. "Expletive" now, I assume, refers to the idea that curse words are empty of meaning. That is obviously arguable, in many cases curse words have very clear meaning, but often they do act as emphasis and nothing else, and make very little sense: what exactly is the "fuck" in "fuck you" mean? It really just amounts to throwing an offensive word -- regardless of meaning -- AT the person you are talking to. How about the "fuck" in "For Fuck's Sake" -- that one seems to be little more than a "For God's Sake" where "Fuck" has replaced God: the word "fuck" there is pure emphasis, with no meaning, and is the sound that works, rather than any particular sense.

It is on this point that the poetry of John Ashbery (for example) and Deadwood come together -- in this emphasis on sound over sense. Not that sense is gone -- just that it becomes secondary to the free floating sounds of word, and word associations (connotations) become more important that any precise dictionary definition. Mamet, Milch (Deadwood), and many others have created a kind of poetry of curse words. Here is Ashbery, at the end of Girls on the Run:

Does this clinch anything? We were cautioned once, told not to venture out--
yet I'd offer this much, this leaf, to thee.
Somewhere, darkness churns and answers are riveting,
taking on a fresh look, a twist. A carousel is burning.
The wide avenue smiles.

Obviously we can get lots out of that, but it reliant on connotation more than anything else: "leaf" can be the leaves of a page, the pages of this poem we are reading; "thee" is wonderfully old fashioned and feels formal now; something is changing, becoming new; childhood is a distant memory, like an old-fashioned carousel enjoyed by children of some distant age; childhood is in danger (burning); the future welcomes us optimistically.

Here is David Mamet (I know I put this up already):

Someone made this as a joke, but there is something in it about the pure force of language:

Mamet is not quite the same thing, but he is headed in that direction.

Comics Out December 17, 2008

I did not pick anything, but do tell me about comics out this week. I am thinking about picking up the post-Fraction Iron Fist at some point -- worth getting?

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Jason Powell on The Kitty Pryde & Wolverine Miniseries

[Guest Blogger Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Chris Claremont’s X-Men run. For more in this series, see the toolbar on the right.]

Kitty Pryde and Wolverine #4

Far from Claremont’s best work, the Kitty/Wolverine miniseries is notable mainly for being the first X-Men story to pair the two characters in a protégé/mentor relationship. The contrived, overly extemporized plot is as follows: Kitty goes to Chicago to visit her father, and learns he’s become involved with Shigematsu, a Japanese crime-lord. She follows her father to Japan, where she quickly realizes she’s in over her head and phones Wolverine for help. Shigematsu’s associate – an evil ninja calling himself Ogun (note again the phonetic allusion to James Carvell’s novel Shogun) – captures Kitty, brainwashes her into becoming his pet ninja apprentice, and sends her out to kill the newly arrived Wolverine. We learn that Ogun was Logan’s sensei years ago, and that there is now bad blood between the two of them. Wolverine rescues Kitty from Ogun’s thrall, becoming her tough-love mentor in the hopes that, with the help of his hard instruction, she’ll burn Ogun’s taint entirely from her psyche.

The climactic final battle involves not only Wolverine, Ogun and Kitty (who has by this time renamed herself “Shadowcat”), but also Yukio and Mariko. In the end, Wolverine saves the day even though he has to resort to his animalistic, berserker mode to do it, and Kitty proves to both Logan and herself that she is free of any evil influence. (As a happy side effect however, Kitty now has expert-level martial arts training.)

Though the story is not without its strong points, it is generally speaking not particularly exciting. Claremont has stated explicitly that he thinks Kitty Pryde & Wolverine is “as good” as the Frank Miller-illustrated Wolverine mini. Again, the author seems to have lost perspective. Where the Miller mini was direct and powerful, this one is contrived and overly complicated. And whereas Miller’s art was innovative and ahead of its time, Milgrom’s work is competent but conventional – and at times ugly.

The series is noteworthy more for historical reasons than anything else. It features not only the first use of the code-name “Shadowcat” for Kitty but also the last appearance of Mariko Yashida in a Claremont book. It’s clear in context that he didn’t mean for it to be thus; we learn in KP&W #5 that Mariko has actually adopted Akiko, the orphan Wolverine rescued in Uncanny #181, and in issue #6, Wolverine refers to himself as Akiko’s “foster father.” It will turn out that “deadbeat dad” would have been more appropriate – Wolverine won’t visit Mariko and Akiko again (at least, not on panel) for the next seven years.

This is another example of Claremont creating more story threads than he can possibly keep track of. Wolverine-as-family-man is an intriguing idea, and Claremont surely intended to explore the notion further in future X-Men comics or Wolverine miniseries ... but instead got sidetracked by various other threads and ideas, so that rather than KP&W being the beginning of something new, the miniseries instead marks the end of an era – no more Wolverine-in-Japan stories from here on out.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Free Form Comments

Say whatever you want to in the comments to this post -- random, off topic thoughts, ideas, suggestions, questions, recommendations, criticisms (which can be anonymous), surveys, introductions if you have never commented before, personal news, self-promotion, requests to be added to the blog roll and so on. If I forget, remind me. Remember these comments can be directed at all the readers, not just me.

ALSO. You can use this space to re-ask me questions you asked me before that I failed to answer because I was too busy.

AND you can use this space to comment on posts that are old enough that no one is reading the comments threads anymore.

You do not have to have a blogger account or gmail account to post a comment -- you can write a comment, write your name at the bottom of your comment like an e mail, and then post using the "anonymous" option.

WRITING FOR THIS BLOG. If I see a big free form comment that deserves more attention, I will pull it and make it its own post, with a label on the post and on the sidebar that will always link to all the posts you write for this blog. I am always looking for reviews of games, tv, movies, music and books.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #188

[Guest Blogger Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Chris Claremont’s X-Men run. For more in this series, see the toolbar on the right.]

Uncanny X-Men, The #188

“Legacy of the Lost”

After several months of tossing out plot threads left and right, Claremont surprisingly ties several of them up – at least temporarily – all in one issue. The result is that “Legacy of the Lost” feels pretty packed; much denser with incident than previous episodes, even the double-sized Uncanny #186. With both a resolution of the Forge/Wraith plot in the comic’s first half and then, in the second half, the long-overdue explanation of how Rachel got from “Days of Future Past” to “The Past of Future Days,” Uncanny #188 feels almost like two different issues bolted together.

First, the X-Men’s battle with the mysterious new demons – evocatively dubbed the “Shadowmass” by Claremont – is notable for its powerfully brisk pace as it jumps from one intense sequence to another: a Wraith-possessed Naze is apparently repossessed by an even worse evil (the Adversary, as would be revealed three years later); cut to Nightcrawler’s recruitment/kidnapping of Amanda Sefton in the midst of a blizzard (which the footnotes tell us is something to do with Thor, but that really doesn’t matter); cut to Amanda’s appearance in the building in a well-designed sorceress costume, followed hard upon by the appearance of a second sorceress – Colossus’ sister. It builds and builds, Claremont now able to draw upon the massive universe of characters he’s built over the last eight years. (For the record, Illyana’s new status as an armored, sword-wielding sorceress was established in Claremont’s Magik miniseries and issues 14-21 of New Mutants). Even Forge – who suffered a dismal debut – at last comes alive in his climactic murder of a final Wraith.

Meanwhile, Romita Jr. once again proves himself one of superhero comics’ most dynamically visceral fight artists, such as in the wonderful two-panel sequence of Illyana leaping through the air to strike the Shadowmass with her sword only to be slammed back against a wall so hard that it cracks, spider-web style.

Ultimately, for all the labyrinthine turns Claremont forced readers through in the bizarrely structured Forge/Storm arc, he ends it with a satisfying climax. That he crams the final act into only half an issue turns out to be advantageous; the economy required by such a decision forces Claremont to avoid extemporaneous flourishes and cut right to the heart of the matter. Claremont is occasionally capable of more economy than he usually gets credit for, and the first half of issue 188 is a quintessential example.

What follows is an interlude that would have made little sense to anyone only reading Uncanny: The scene preceding it (Magneto’s Asteroid M being pulverized and Magneto himself falling to Earth) and several that follow it (Lee Forrester and Magneto returning to the latter’s Bermuda Triangle headquarters) all take place in Claremont and Sienkiewicz’s New Mutants. Why this one link in the narrative chain shows up in Uncanny is hard to intuit, although let it be said that Romita draws a particularly sexy Lee Forrester, which alone might be justification enough.

Finally, readers are forced to endure another example of Rachel getting upset over a new discovery in the alternate present (this time, she goes nuts when she learns that in this reality, Jean Grey died). For the record, Rachel never becomes tolerable; she is far and away Claremont’s single most irritating contribution to the X-franchise – a whiny, self-pitying plot device with not a single redeeming character trait.

Still, Rachel’s scene here is better than most, only because Claremont has fun with the other X-Men’s reaction to her description of the dystopia that is her origin. Colossus’ amazement that in Rachel’s future he is married to Kitty is quite a nice touch, as is Rogue’s shock that her foster mother, Mystique, touched off the “Days of Future Past” tragedy with her assassination of Robert Kelly.

Overall, however, the heart of this scene is Nightcrawler. At this point in the series, Kurt has been underused for quite some time. One gets the sense that Claremont couldn’t think of anything new to do with the character – if that’s true, his decision here is rather shrewd: He credits Nightcrawler’s relative underexposure to Kurt’s own ennui. He has a fantastic line about wanting to start living life for himself “instead of some amorphous dream!” This may be self-criticism on Claremont’s part, the recognition that much of his work on the series up to this point has had only a tangential connection to Xavier’s “dream.”

That Rachel’s vision of a horrible future should change Nightcrawler’s mind is not entirely convincing – it’s much more easy to relate to Kurt when he initially opines, “With respect, Rachel, you’ve proved my case.” Rachel’s explanation for why the X-Men are important largely amounts to cleverly phrased rhetoric, the actual substance of which is a little lacking in logic. Still, the very fact that the idealistic Kurt found himself – however briefly – in an existential crisis over the X-Men’s existence is an interesting idea by Claremont. The author will explore this idea again in about a year’s time.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Favorite Albums 2008

by Scott

[Before Scott gets to his more complicated list, the meat of this post, I am going to do a quick Geoff Klock favorite albums of 2008 list. I wish I could participate better in this: I have been doing better buying a lot of music this year, but not enough FROM this year to talk intelligently even about such a personal thing as a favorite. But nevertheless here are the six 2008 albums I have:

6. Bobby Digital's Digi Snacks, -- This was weak, I thought, except for the second track. Just not that memorable.
5. Flying Lotus's Los Angeles, -- This was a lot more atmospheric than I was looking for. Nothing sticks with me.
4. Wu Tang Clan's 8 Diagrams -- This had a lot of good stuff on it, but did not hold together well as an album.
3. Kanye West's 808s and Heartbreak -- This is a weird one, and still requires deliberation: my first impression is that I love the production but found the lyrics really disappointing. It ends with a live track of Kanye rapping in Singapore and that seems like the best audience for the album: people that do not know what the words mean.
2. The GZA's Pro Tools, -- Strong stuff in a solid short album.
1. T.I. 's Paper Trail -- This is definitely the favorite. Celebratory and just FUN which is primarily what I am looking for. "On top of the World" and "Life Your Life" are the real standouts.

The AV Club put out a top 30 albums of 2008. That is going to be a sort of list for me for a while: I am going to try various stuff on that for the next few months. Here is Scott:]

(Note: As the title indicates, these are, more or less, just my favorite albums of 2008 and, as we’ve discussed before, my preference is for the Rock. I invite anyone whose preference is for the Hip-Hop [or the Pop, Country, Indie or Polka for that matter] to make their own post for the blog!)

Well, it’s the end of the year and all the big magazines are doing their ‘Best of the Year’ pieces. Both Spin
and Rolling Stone have named TV On The Radio’s ‘Dear Science’ their number one album; an album, that from what I’ve heard, isn’t really all that impressive: If I had wanted to hear a Beck album I would have bought the new Beck album… which is exactly what I did. Also, Rolling Stone continues to prove my point about Dylan being overrated (or perhaps just overpraised). When we had our discussion here, I named Dylan as a possible contender for ‘Most Overrated’ artists based primarily on the fact that magazines like Rolling Stone are constantly giving highest marks to WHATEVER he releases, often naming said album the best album of the year. This time around, while he doesn’t take the top spot, he manages to land the number 2 position with ‘Tell Tale Signs- The Bootleg Series Vol. 8’, a collection of unreleased rarities recorded between 1989 and 2006. Granted, I haven’t heard this and, in fact, it may be a transcendent collection of tunes, but I find it hard to believe that a handful of tracks that Dylan didn’t think worth releasing in the first place that were recorded during a pretty hit-and-miss portion of his career is the best album of 2008. If it were, say, some long lost recordings from his mid-sixties renaissance, then it would be more understandable. But, even then, would that be more relevant than music actually making its debut in 2008? In my own year-end-best-of I put such albums in a sort of ‘best of stuff that isn’t really new this year category’… kind of like a ‘Best Re-issues’ category. If not, I probably would have put the bonus disc included with the Reissue of U2’s Boy as my number 2 album.

However, in a more roundabout way, am I guilty of the same thing as Rolling Stone? Of all my artist, the ‘youngest’ artist listed, other than the Killers, is The Raconteurs… whose band members have actually been around for about 10 years in one way or another. Do I no longer appreciate new music? Is my lack of appreciation for TV On The Radio just the result of me growing old … have I finally entered the phase of ‘These Kids and Their Music Today’? I certainly hope not. Anyway, let me know if there’s something that you think I should check out… especially something by a newer artist; I’m always looking for something new to listen to. Maybe I’m just getting picky in my old age.

Anyway, here are my pics:

10. Black Ice- Ac/Dc- It has been hailed as their best album since Back In Black; probably not entirely true since, song wise, it’s really only their best since 1990’s Razor’s Edge. With a band like Ac/Dc, it’s really about just capturing their sound and Brendan O’Brian deserves credit for making them sound better than they have in decades.

Momofuku- Elvis Costello- This album manages to combine the sounds of his previous two ‘rock’ albums, Delivery Man and When I Was Cruel, without being quite as good as either of them. That sounds like a slight, but this is still a solid album from one of the best singer-songwriters in the business.

8. Day & Age- The Killers- I keep waiting for the Killers to release their masterpiece and, while Day & Age might be their best overall album yet, it still lacks any songs as brilliant as “Somebody Told Me” or “Mr. Brightside.” With their last album, as a side effect of touring with U2 and listening to too much Springsteen, they made a failed attempt at ‘earnestness.’ Fortunately, for this album they remembered they were from Las Vegas and managed to stay in more familiar territory without losing any of the grandiosity and scope that they experimented with on Sam’s Town.

7. In Rainbows- Radiohead- I almost didn’t include this one since, in a very big, groundbreaking way, this album actually came out last year (and thanks to someone at the local Wal-Mart accidentally putting it on the shelves too early; I also bought my hard copy of the album last year). Part of me keeps wishing that Radiohead would just make a kick ass rock album, but, nevertheless, I enjoy anything they do and this is probably their best collection of tunes since Ok Computer (even though it sounds NOTHING like Ok Computer).

6. Modern Guilt- Beck- Beck does something different on just about every album. This one is his version of Psychadelic Garage Rock. As always, he puts his unique spin on it and, as always, it’s excellent.

5. Death Magnetic- Metallica- Their best album since the Black Album and their heaviest since And Justice For All…, Death Magnetic is Metallica speeding up in their old age; the tempos are faster, the songs longer, the results their most satisfying work in 17 years.

Accelerate- REM- The songs could have been better but the band is playing with more energy than they have in a decade. The 10 years since Bill Berry left the band have seen a lack of direction in the studio even as they remained a top notch live act; coming hot on the heels of last year's live album, Accelerate manages to capture some of the magic in the studio.

3. Viva La Vida Or Death and All of His Friends/Prospekt’s March- Coldplay - I was initially disappointed with Viva La Vida because the album felt unfinished and, had the band not released the Prospekt’s March EP, they would have probably come in a spot lower on this list, but, with said EP, they finally managed to ‘finish’ the album so to speak. It would have been better if they had done so in the first place and, while I feel Coldplay still has their best album ahead of them, “Viva La Vida” and “Violet Hill” are, by far, the best songs they have produced to date.

Consolers of The Lonely- The Raconteurs- Jack White and company allow themselves to embrace excessiveness… which, next to something like Chinese Democracy, still sounds like a dude with a banjo and a couple of cymbals strapped to his kneecaps…. But, nonetheless, the album is a delightful combination of garage-rock, blues, bluegrass, classic rock and over-the-top balladry.

Chinese Democracy- Guns N’ Roses- Ok, granted, this probably gets a certain level of ‘extra credit’ so to speak because A) It was actually finally released and B) unlike most of the albums on this list that were either about what I expected them to be (REM, Metallica) or a little disappointed with (Coldplay) this album FAR EXCEDED my expectations. Axl’s not the most brilliant lyricist in the world and Chuck Klosterman’s description of the album’s lyrics as “Appropriately Narcissistic”, is pretty much, the most accurate evaluation that I have heard… but, then again, that’s the way his lyrics always were. Otherwise, the album is filled with brilliant musicianship, catchy melodies and lush arrangements. This is not an album meant for ear buds or computer speakers; it’s meant to be blasted from the best sound system you have available. A refreshing approach when most albums tend to go for a mix, like The Killers latest, that sounds better coming through one speaker in my factory issue car stereo, than it does my home sound system. At the end of the day, Rose and company managed to make a top notch album that, for the most part, successfully managed to evoke the classic Guns N’ Roses while still managing to sound modern, no small feat in and of itself, but , given the expectations placed on this album, isn’t that one the most reasonable?

Other Stuff:

Honorable Mention- Jukebox- Cat Power- This was actually my number 10 album before I decided to include In Rainbows.

U2’s reissues of Boy, October, War and Under a Blood Red Sky. Totally high quality packaging with great liner-notes and plenty of rare, unreleased and live tracks with each album. Under A Blood Red Sky is released on DVD for the first time and looks/sounds gourgeous. The two disc versions of October and War may not be essential to the more casual U2 fan but the bonus disc with Boy is excellent including some of their most hard to find and unreleased tracks from the earliest days of their career. And, of course, it’s all remastered so it sounds great. Keeping my fingers crossed for the re-issue of Achtung Baby sometime in the near future.

The Police- Certifiable- (CD/DVD) I couldn’t afford the couple of hundred dollars it would have costs me to ACTUALLY have gone to see the band on this tour but the 20 bucks I paid for this excellent 2-CD, 2 DVD set is a nice consolation prize. The band is in fine form here and I’m continually amazed at the amount of sound they are able to create with just the three of them on the stage.

The Who- Live At Kilburn 1977- There’s precious little video of the original Who, live in their prime, this two disc set (that also features most of a set from the ‘Tommy’ tour) corrects that omission in the bands DVD catalogue.

Top Songs of 2008:

5. “Rock And Roll Train”- Ac/Dc
4. “Violet Hill”- Coldplay
3. “Consolers of The Lonely”- The Raconteurs
2. “Salute Your Salution” –The Raconteurs
1. “Viva La Vida”- Coldplay

Friday, December 12, 2008

Comics Out Wednesday December 10, 2008

Final Crisis 5. Jog did an excellent review of this comic, I thought. His point that the issue is by no means great, especially on the art front, but that the second half has a lot of fun madness in it is how I feel about this issue exactly. I know that is completely a cop out as a review on this site so I will add a few thoughts of my own: the Rubik's cube thing was dumb, Mr Miracle popping back to life because he was wearing a vest after last issue's cliffhanger on that point was super weak (he cannot die, fine, that was established in Seven Soldiers, but make him "escape" death in a more interesting way), Darkseid is all talk -- all this stuff about never seeing a New God for REAL is all rhetoric: stop talking man and just fucking DO IT, ya know? Morrison needs J.G. Jones to sell this stuff: his pages here are great and I hope that Morrison will do some work, short but self-contained, with him again. The last page was kind of AWESOME, and I loved it. Overall I am still a little checked out in terms of the series as a whole because of the fill in artists, and the rumored editorial changes to the final issue, but I will keep getting it and basically liking it as a result of diminished expectations,

Punisher X-Mas Special. I read the first Scalped trade and I liked it OK; I thought this was very good too. It's a fun story that does a surprisingly good job being a solid self contained Punisher story and also a Christmas special without going off in a comic vein that would have been really easy given the topic. There is something really admirable about Aaron's ability to take the task of a holiday special seriously and deliver a GOOD STORY rather than an easy joke.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #187

[Guest Blogger Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Chris Claremont’s X-Men run. For more in this series, see the toolbar on the right.]

Uncanny X-Men, The #187


Now this is more like it. Picking up only minutes after where the overwrought “LifeDeath” left off, Uncanny #187 finds Claremont much more focused than he’s been in a while. Refining the narrative scope to a single event – the Dire Wraiths’ attack on Forge’s home – Claremont, Romita Jr. and Green deliver a solid action-thriller, starring the tough, hardcore Storm who was so conspicuously absent during the saccharine proceedings of the previous issue.

Another welcome addition to the cast is Naze, who manages in the very first panel of his appearance here to make a stronger impression than Forge has after three months. A weathered, rifle-toting Native shaman and the professed foster father of Forge, Naze is a tough-guy in Claremont’s Wolverine style that would have made a great recurring character. Instead, he is sacrificed – possessed by a Wraith -- as part of Claremont’s narrative trick to give a twist to the end of “Wraithkill.” As presented, the narrative sequence is a little muddy; essentially, Naze is possessed by a Wraith, an event which seems to awaken or somehow garner the attention of some other – even worse -- entity. The exact nature of this menace is not specified, but we do get the impression that it is what Naze and Forge were discussing three issues earlier. This is the being that is rending the fabric of reality, and its harbingers appear in the cliffhanger of Uncanny #187. We’re basically seeing Claremont use a classic writer’s trick – a particularly useful one in serial adventure stories – wherein one villain turns out to be a red herring (here, that’s the Wraiths; they’re even the right color), and the hero is confronted with a greater menace waiting in the wings.

The artistic rendering of the last page’s villains – big, amorphous and black – recalls Bill Sienkiewicz’s artistic interpretation of the Demon Bear in New Mutants 18-20, and we are probably meant to recognize that the same entity is responsible for both threats. Claremont is probably being a bit too vague here – especially considering that he won’t get around to the big reveal until “Fall of the Mutants” in 1987.

Still, despite some of the narrative sloppiness, this is Claremont’s most exciting issue of Uncanny X-Men in quite a while. The directness of the story’s premise – Storm fighting her way through demons to get to the top of Forge’s tower – allows for a lot of fun moments, and Claremont paces the issue well, ratcheting up the tension with controlled regularity so that the sudden appearance of Colossus and Rogue makes for a thrilling and surprising climax (much more so than the last time Claremont used this trick, in issue 184).

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Proposal for a Batman Course

[I submitted this to my department this week. Let's see what what happens.]

This course will focus primarily on one man’s vision of Batman: Frank Miller. You might know Frank Miller as man behind such blockbuster movies as Sin City (2005), 300 (2006), and The Spirit (2008) but he is most famous for a series of Batman comics he created. We will begin by looking at Understanding Comics to learn how to interpret the comic book page, followed by an interactive lecture on the history of Batman from 1939-1985. After that two-week introduction we will reach the center and largest part of the course, as we read and discuss Miller’s Batman comics: Dark Knight Returns (1986), Year One (1987), Dark Knight Strikes Again (2001), and All Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder (2008). We will explore their relationship to the earlier generation of comics and their relationship one another – Frank Miller makes radical and controversial leaps as both an artist and a writer during these years, and his Batman reveals a very questionable politics. Students will learn to articulate these developments – and learn how to write about the comics medium -- through an essay on his early years, and another on his later years. In the final part of the course we will look at Batman in the movies. Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) would not have been made were it not for the excitement Miller created for the character in the mid-eighties. The recent mega-blockbusters Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008), the first of which is founded in a loose interpretation of Miller’s Year One, are very much in the shadow of the man who defined what Batman is. A third and final essay will evaluate the influence of Miller’s Batman in the movies – possibly including Sin City, 300, and The Spirit, which in many ways are Batman movies that are only superficially something else.

Course Books
Understanding Comics
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns
Batman: Year One
The Dark Knight Strikes Again
All Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder

Paper One, 1000 words (30%) – On Miller’s Dark Knight Returns or Year One
Paper Two, 1000 words (30%) – On Miller’s Dark Knight Strikes Again or All Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder
Paper Three, 1500 words (40%) – On Batman, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, Sin City, 300, or The Spirit

The problem with teaching a course on comics is that comics have a poor ratio of expense versus material for discussion. Even with books on reserve and used books I cannot teach a class on superhero comics generally or even the Batman character generally without students running up a bill of more than $100 or having limited access to the material. My solution: a course on one creator’s vision of Batman, in which I will do a Power Point presentation on the Batman character from 1939 to 1985. The course books will cost, according to less than 70 dollars. Because of Miller’s recent turn as a film director, and the reliance of the recent Batman movies on his work, going to film is an easy way to flesh out the class with easily available material that can be cheaply rented and/or shown in class.

Free Form Comments

Say whatever you want to in the comments to this post -- random, off topic thoughts, ideas, suggestions, questions, recommendations, criticisms (which can be anonymous), surveys, introductions if you have never commented before, personal news, self-promotion, requests to be added to the blog roll and so on. If I forget, remind me. Remember these comments can be directed at all the readers, not just me.

ALSO. You can use this space to re-ask me questions you asked me before that I failed to answer because I was too busy.

AND you can use this space to comment on posts that are old enough that no one is reading the comments threads anymore.

You do not have to have a blogger account or gmail account to post a comment -- you can write a comment, write your name at the bottom of your comment like an e mail, and then post using the "anonymous" option.

WRITING FOR THIS BLOG. If I see a big free form comment that deserves more attention, I will pull it and make it its own post, with a label on the post and on the sidebar that will always link to all the posts you write for this blog. I am always looking for reviews of games, tv, movies, music and books.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #186

[Guest Blogger Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Chris Claremont’s X-Men run. For more in this series, see the toolbar on the right.]

Uncanny X-Men, The #186


When asked to pick out eight key X-Men stories from his 17-year tenure to be featured in the “X-Men Visionaries: Chris Claremont” volume, only five of the author’s selections were from Uncanny, and one of them was “LifeDeath.” In his written intro to the story in that same TPB, Claremont clearly is quite pleased with the comic, a “double-sized” collaboration with the phenomenally talented Barry Windsor-Smith.

Indeed, Windsor-Smith’s visuals are stunning to behold – densely packed while at the same time perfectly composed. His use of body language is phenomenally fluid and controlled, and he should be winning awards just for the way he draws rain.

Perhaps overly taken with the visuals provided by his collaborator, Claremont seems quite impressed with his own writing on the issue as well. He’s a little too close to the material perhaps, because Uncanny #186 is far from his best work.

The idea is quite nice. Her mutant powers now gone, Ororo finds herself both incredibly vulnerable and suddenly able to give free rein to her passions without worrying about how her emotions might adversely affect her environment. Quite reasonably then, in such a state, Storm finds herself instantly attracted to Forge, the first and only male she comes into contact with after losing her abilities.

The problem lies in the execution of the concept, which comes off as saccharine and insincere. We are meant to sense a palpable chemistry between Ororo and Forge, but the latter character is still too hazily developed at this point. And while Ororo’s sudden shift – from the forceful personality she’d developed over the last year back to her Byrne-era naivety – is, granted, the whole point of the story. But it is not at all convincing. The dialogue, too, is meant to be fraught with romantic tension, but it is awkward and forced. Note, for example, that at one point she says -- literally without preamble -- “My parents were killed by bombs. They leveled our house. My mother and I were buried in the rubble. I watched her die. That is why I am terrified of enclosed spaces. I have never told this, to any living soul.” Nowhere before this moment in Uncanny #186 (search hard if you must) has Storm had a claustrophobic reaction while in Forge’s presence, nor has the subject ever come up. Also, why does Storm refer to “living souls”? Has she talked about her parents’ death to dead souls? Awkward, hyperbolized non-sequiturs like this one typify the Ororo/Forge dialogue in “LifeDeath.” Claremont was explicitly proud of it, but it’s some of his weakest work. Compared to, for example, the effortlessly smooth dialogue in the John Bolton Classic X-Men backups or the heart-rending Peter/Kitty scene of just three issues ago, the dialogue in “LifeDeath” is downright embarrassing.

On the other hand, the extended middle sequence of the issue featuring Rogue versus the Dire Wraiths is rather tense, gripping stuff. The tightly arranged panels by Windsor-Smith in which Valerie Cooper smashes her way out of a crowded parking lot are particularly exciting, and the Dire Wraiths – who seemed so laughable in the previous issue’s cliffhanger – seem frightening and dangerous here. This is one of those relatively rare issues in which Claremont’s talent for writing action waxes, while his knack for character drama wanes.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Neverending Stories

By Stefan Delatovic [I make a brief comment at the end.]

As a monthly serial, comics never really end.

While storylines within, say, the Uncanny X-Men title may wind up, the central story following the characters' lives will continue forever. Even when a storyline finishes, the open-ended nature of the narrative can see it be drawn on indefinitely. The reader can never really be sure that they have seen the last word on any given plot, subject or character. (Batman is a bit of a different story. Even DC seems happy to have Miller's take on the character's last hurrah be the definitive version.)

Robbed of an ending, comics spend far too much time monkeying around with the beginning. Origin stories - the best of which are simple enough to be relayed in a single sentence - undergo unnecessary revision and expansion every few years. Wolverine, once remarkable for his mysterious lack of an origin tale, ended up with a mess of convoluted rubbish so dense that adamantium claws could not cut him free.

Even as their roots grow dense characters are never allowed to stray too far, lest they become inaccessible. When Marvel felt Spiderman had swung too far from his beginnings, they enlisted the devil himself to bring him back into line. Superman may momentarily be made of electricity and Aquaman may grow a beard, but eventually they snap back to their established norm.
(Can you imagine tending an unruly beard while living in water with a hand made of water? No wonder he became such a 90s downer.)

Publishers are aware of these constraints. They chafe against such storytelling paralysis by accentuating any change, no matter how illusionary or brief, as being of such import as to 'break the internet in half'. Morrison's Batman RIP storyline would have no doubt been less disappointing to someone not exposed to DC's publicity machine, which promised the closing chapter would make us all burn our previous works of fiction in reverence to its superiority and importance. It is a testament to this publicity that I'm unable to find someone who was not exposed to these claims. But it is audience expectations that feed the system. Whether we are hoping for relevance in the art we consume, burned by past disappointments or simply jonesing for a good story, we repeatedly look past the medium's constraints and believe the hype. Batman will not die, and we all know this, but we wanted to believe it anyway.

Given that these stories are cyclical and unending - as, ironically, is this article - how far is too far? Can we not expect any closure at all?

I have been enjoying Marvel and DC's slate of unending events as it rolls along, with each feeding into the next. It's a good model, with big things happening all the time to distract from the lack of change we all know lurks under the surface. Secret Invasion has come to a close and birthed Dark Reign. But whereas Civil War gave us an (arguably anticlimactic) ending that sprang into The Initiative storyline - more a state of play than a crossover event - the current transition was not so smooth.
Secret Invasion, like finally settling in to watch The Matrix Reloaded, was a stale event preceded by excellent build-up. The central story was rushed, dull and overshadowed by tie-in stories such as The Incredible Hercules. The ending was particularly disappointing. The final issue, charged with ending a story that had revealed little up until that point, was hamstrung by setting up the next story. There was no closure and no pay-off. Events that could be exciting were rushed through in an effort to get Dark Reign up and running. It was disappointing. I view this as a new low, but am I alone? Given all I've outlined above, is this a storytelling failure or more of the same?

[The best way to handle this, if you cannot get a prestige book like All Star Superman, is to do something that signals to the reader that what you have is an "end" even though it will be continued next month and ignored. New X-Men had a smart ending: it jumped into an "possible" future which was then destroyed -- we saw and ending and we saw Morrison himself overwrite it. Then the next guy came on. But Morrison people knew that that was it. Morrison, of course, was commenting on the neverending nature of mainstream comics. What he was doing in Batman RIP I have no idea. The title signals a KIND of end -- obviously he is not going to kill Batman for real -- and so I really expected something more than Batman punching a helicopter, before just heading into the next unrelated story 7 days later. I understand Batman goes on and on but it needed a symbolic ending, a symbolic death more important than Batman punching his was out of a coffin taken from Kill Bill.]

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Sinupret Commercial

by Sara

This is the most disturbing commercial I have ever seen. What is wrong with these people?

Friday, December 05, 2008

Comics Out Thursday December 4th, 2008 (Morrison's Batman))

Batman 682.

Superhero origin stories are told again and again -- even Superman is getting a new one, which is just silly at this point, yeah? The trick is, what are you going to add to the story that was not there before persuasively. How many times have I seen that bat crash through Batman's window? Lots of times. How many times has it occurred to me that the bat is surely dead as a result of the crash through the window? Zero. That there would be a mess to clean up? Zero. That of course Alfred is going to have to dispose of this stupid fucking animal, which has no symbolic significance for him? Zero. That he is going to have to THROW IT AWAY and BURN it, because it is a dead animal that is going to give someone RABIES or something. That page seriously cracked me up, because it perfectly fulfills the Hollywood axiom of be INEVITABLE yet SURPRISING. (If I was still arguing that Morrison was in a literary agon with Miller, this would be a great subversion of Year One, but I am declaring that fight over. Morrison never stood a chance, but he can still hold his head proud for kicking the crap out of Alan Moore's Man of Tomorrow story in All Star Superman).

The rest of the issue was not so good. The variant history thing where you acknowledge variant tellings of the story with "thats not how it happened I have seen before and seen better. I have certainly seen it DRAWN better by John Cassaday in Planetary/Batman. Mothman and Snake man did not do it for me. The art was occasionally charming (panels 2 and 4 of page 13 for example), but not by any means a favorite. The end reveal was OK, but as Tim Callahan points out, it refers to a book that came out long ago, and which I do not really remember anymore. Overall: a lukewarm comic book with one great page.

Deadwood Parody

Darius Kazemi, when he found out I was watching Deadwood sent me this pretty funny youtube Deadwood parody. Not Safe For Work, and probably not that funny if you have not seen the show.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

What I've Been Playing

by Ping33

Hello all,

I'm back sooner than I expected... more than a year ago I posted my 'top 10 games of all time'

Every year there seems to be a debate as to if the current year is the best one in gaming history, this makes sense as technology is constantly improving. In films, it's not often true that the sequel is better than the original, there are exceptions (Star Wars, maybe The Godfather...) but these are vastly outweighed by those which aren't (Indiana Jones, Matrix, Lord of the Rings, every horror movie ever... Weekend at Bernies) In games this ratio seems to be reversed, I can think of few games where part 2 isn't better than part 1 (Big ones being Devil May Cry and Halo.)

I acknowledged this in my list where I had the 10th spot as 'reserved for the now'
I think it's interesting how much my list can change in 15 short months so I would like to take this chance to update with annotations about the additions and subtractions.

Legend of Zelda: The Phantom Hourglass (Nintendo DS) - (replacing Zelda: Wind Waker) Phantom Hourglass is the direct sequel to WW which is quite rare in the Zelda series, as virtually all of them tend to recreate the story rather than update it. PH is also the most different Zelda game since Zelda II. I loved Wind Waker because I thought it's graphics held up better than the aging Zelda Ocarina of Time and because it was just plain fun. PH updates the formula via the sole reliance on touch-screen controls. That plus the ability to take notes and make marks on the map are genius applications of Nintendo's technology and fit in perfectly with the Zelda series (far more perfectly than the clumsily implemented waggle controls of Zelda: Twilight Princess for Wii)

Joust (just about every videogame system since 1981) - (Returning Champ) I loved and still love the feeling of weight you get while flying, this was the first game which caused me to use Body English to vainly keep my Jouster out of the morgue.

Jet Set Radio Future (Xbox) - (Returning Champ) Man, I love this game. I also just got a used copy of the Gameboy Advance remake of Jet Grind Radio, the Dreamcast original the name was changed from 'Jet Set' to 'Jet Grind' in the west because Rare had a game called Jet Set Gemini for the n64 and threatened to sue Sega if they didn't change it, I guess that wasn't an issue by the time JSRF came out for Xbox, not sure why they didn't revert to 'Set' with the GBA game. In anycase, I'm not a fan of the isometric controls on the GBA version but the music and aesthetics are still strong. As for JSRF, it is perfection... the speed, music, everything. JSRF is a under-appreciated masterwork which never garnered the audience it deserved. Cross genera games have a tendency to do poorly commercially and this Platforming/Skating mash-up is no exception. But it is playable on Xbox 360 if your 360 has had a system update since April 19th 2007 stop reading this and go to ebay and drop $10 on this immediately!

Bioshock (PC,PS3,360) - (Replacing Halo) For my money Bioshock is the best single player FPS. Wonderful design (Underwater Art Deco.) Superbly written with great themes (what other game is a meditation on Objectivism?!) On my list Bioshock replaces the juggernaut called Halo. A wonderful game which has dimmed in my mind as each sequel gets worse and my memories of LAN matches fade into the haze that was 1999.

Starcraft (PC) - (returning champ) still my favourite RTS game though Age of Empires III comes close. I will even spend money to upgrade my PC to play Starcraft II when it comes out.

Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions (PSP) - (replaces Nights: Into Dreams, the memory of which was killed when the awful Wii sequel came out) Shortly after making my list last year I discovered FFT. I got halfway through the PS1 version on my (hacked) PSP before my Hong Kong Knock-off Memory card died. Then I got the PSP Remake which outshines the original in several ways. I played Final Fantasy Tactics in some form or another from September 2007-March 2008, I then got the DS sequel FFT:A2 in June and played THAT for several months. I LOVE these games... LOVE them.

Portal (PC,PS3,360) - (Replacing Super Metroid) The best written game in recent memory is a puzzle game?! strange but true. Portal is so good it got my wife to play a FPS to completion. There is a reason that so much of its content went on to become Internet memes. Portal will be long remembered as a cultural milestone beloved by all. And Then There Will Be Cake!

Every Extend Extra (PSP) or Every Extend Extra Extreme (360) - (Returning Champ) I wrote a rapturous ode to the PSP version of this on my own aborted blog and that still holds up. I think e3 is better than e4 but both try to do different things. e3 recreates Asteroids with shortish bursts of play while e4 is a tantric epic which can take hours.

Burnout Paradise (PS3, 360) - (Replacing WipEout, though the new WipEout HD for ps3 is also spectacular) The flat out best racing game, with the best online features, and prettiest graphics EVER. Just an amazing, stunning achievement and best of all... Criterion keeps on supporting it with new content!

#10 Reserved for the NOW (Little Big Planet, Fallout, and the new GTA IV Content in Feb!)

What have we learned from this?
More than half the entries have changed in a little over a year, only Burnout and Phantom Hourglass are purely technical achievements. Bioshock's wonderful graphics and design help it but it and Portal are both new entries which made the list in large part because of writing (an element which didn't factor on the old list.) Now that graphics and tech resources aren't as limited I think games are freed to explore more areas than just having the most realistic images and best sound. Portal and Bioshock can push narrative. Little Big Planet can push design and user involvement. Fallout, Oblivion and Grand Theft Auto can push immersion. I look forward to writing this list next year and wonder how it will have changed.

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #185

[Guest Blogger Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Chris Claremont’s X-Men run. For more in this series, see the toolbar on the right.]

Uncanny X-Men, The #185
“Public Enemy”

This issue at least pulls together some of the many chaotic ongoing subplots Claremont has got simmering at one time. Raven and Valerie had been bouncing around the title for the last couple months doing nothing of seeming relevance, but Claremont weaves them in here, as we see their meeting with Forge and the material involving his “Neutralizer” (a weapon that steals superpowers) become tied in with the dangling thread of issue 182, wherein Rogue was framed for murdering a government agent. We see now where Claremont was going with all of this in the climactic bit, as a Neutralizer-blast meant for Rogue hits Storm, inaugurating a new status quo for the latter character: She is now powerless. This is actually a supremely logical step in Ororo’s evolution as a character, a perfect way to continue her ongoing progress from the original mother/goddess incarnation of the classic Cockrum/Byrne days to someone more down to earth (both literally and figuratively).

The centerpiece of “Public Enemy” is a lovely extended sequence between Storm and Rogue set on a Mississippi riverbank. Romita Jr. and Green shine in this section of the comic, both with the lushness of the environment and in their visualization of Rogue, suddenly -- and for the first time – a very sexy character. Matters become a little awkward when the scene switches from sentimental to action-packed. The art remains top notch (note the particularly arresting panel depicting Storm as she shoots lightning from every extremity), but Claremont’s writing instantly and inexplicably becomes awkward. There’s a particularly painful bit in which Rogue self-consciously analyzes her own thoughts during a firefight, realizing that she is more heroic than she thought; it’s really awful.

Also, while it’s true that certain threads are being pulled tighter, others continue to be awkwardly jumbled in. A scene with Rachel tells readers what they’d surely guessed – Rachel is not just some random mutant from an alternate future; she is the daughter of Cyclops and Jean Grey (though she mistakenly pegs Madelyne’s voice as that of her mother’s during a phone call). It’s not exactly a shocker, and the dramatic beat of Rachel reacting to some anachronism or present-day surprise by bursting into tears is already getting old, and this is only the second month Claremont’s used it.

Meanwhile, Destiny mentions that “the very fabric of time itself has been rent asunder.” This probably refers to the same menace that Naze was concerned with in the previous issue, but two months in a row of such vague threats is – again – getting old. Claremont also is making things a bit tough on readers: Is the rending of time’s fabric something to do with Rachel having just come from the future? (The answer will turn out to be no, but that’s certainly not clear here.) Is it anything to do with the “Demon Bear” in New Mutants? (There, the answer is probably yes, but even that’s debatable because Claremont is so vague.)

The reference toward the end to a Storm/Mystique story in “future issues of Marvel Fanfare” is frustrating as well. Key story beats are being omitted simply so they can appear in some other comic book – at some vague point in the future? (The actual story doesn’t appear until Marvel Fanfare #40, some three years hence. It’s not bad, but it isn’t worth the wait either.)

The last page marks the final insult, in which the Rom villains known as Dire Wraiths announce their attention to kill Forge. Villains we have never seen in action (unless we read Rom, of all things) threaten to kill a character we know virtually nothing about. This is a cliffhanger?

[This sounds like some of Morrison's crap cliffhanger beats from New X-Men. He really DID steal everything from Claremont. :)]

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Free Form Comments

Say whatever you want to in the comments to this post -- random, off topic thoughts, ideas, suggestions, questions, recommendations, criticisms (which can be anonymous), surveys, introductions if you have never commented before, personal news, self-promotion, requests to be added to the blog roll and so on. If I forget, remind me. Remember these comments can be directed at all the readers, not just me.

ALSO. You can use this space to re-ask me questions you asked me before that I failed to answer because I was too busy.

AND you can use this space to comment on posts that are old enough that no one is reading the comments threads anymore.

You do not have to have a blogger account or gmail account to post a comment -- you can write a comment, write your name at the bottom of your comment like an e mail, and then post using the "anonymous" option.

WRITING FOR THIS BLOG. If I see a big free form comment that deserves more attention, I will pull it and make it its own post, with a label on the post and on the sidebar that will always link to all the posts you write for this blog. I am always looking for reviews of games, tv, movies, music and books.

Imaginary Covers

by Scott

AC/DC recently released what is being hailed as their best album in nearly 30 years and, granted, the band sounds great but, when it comes to the success of the new material, the songs themselves, apart from the delightful “Rock and Roll Train” the band seems incapable of creating any new material that even verges on the best of their classic material. After mulling this over for a while, a thought occurred to me, while they are still a talented team of musicians that plays well together they seem to have run out of steam in terms of songwriting. So, why not do what so many other artists have done in the later stages of careers: the cover album! Many artists, from Rod Stewart to James Taylor who find their well of original material drying up, will often resort to an album composed entirely of the songs of others. This provides an interesting opportunity for the artist to display their talents as vocalist, musicians or arrangers without the burden of having to produce quality original material.

On the one hand, it may seem lazy (and the worst of these albums usually are) on the other hand, when done properly, it is an interesting opportunity to hear a great artist giving their unique take on an already great song. A while back on this blog, I listed Def Leppard’s Yeah! as one of my ‘most underrated’ albums. This, I think, is a great example of what a good covers album should sound like: a group of artists having fun playing music that they love, while still giving their own unique twists on the songs. In the case of Def Leppard, this meant covers of, often obscure, glam and 70’s rock tunes that the band members grew up on. For AC/DC, who at the end of the day are just a good ‘ol fashioned Rock N’ Roll/Boogie Woogie Blues band, I would suggest an album of early rock songs: imagine how great the band would sound tearing through “Jailhouse Rock” or classic Chuck Berry numbers like “Too Much Monkey Business”

This line of thought led me to a rather odd musical question that crosses my mind every now and again: What covers would you most like to hear (but probably never will)? That is, what is an artist/song pairing that seems absolutely perfect… or that you think would just be really interesting.

Here are some of my favorite ‘Imaginary Covers’:

Bruce Springsteen tackling Don McClean’s “American Pie”- Is there really any explanation necessary for this one? Who better than the great American Rock N’ Roll purist to cover this song that chronicles the history of the music he loves?

Queensryche doing Michael Jackson’s “Dirty Diana”- I don’t know how I ever came up with this one. Basically, the song is Jackson’s attempt a sort of sexy heavy metal song and I think Queensryche (a very underrated band in their own right) could pull it off; I also think Geoff Tate’s voice would be a great match for this one.

Johnny Cash Vs U2’s “Wake Up, Dead Man”- I cannot begin to describe how much I hope that somewhere, in that collection of three dozen or so songs that Rick Rubin has yet to release from his final sessions with ‘The Man In Black’, that there is his take on this woefully underrated U2 track from their equally underrated album ‘Pop’. This is mostly because I think hearing Cash deliver the opening line of the song (which I consider one of my favorite opening lines) “Jesus, Jesus help me, I’m alone in this world. And a fucked-up world it is too” in the deep but worn vocals of his final days would be a damn near transcendent experience.

Also, do you think any of these would actually be a good idea? Maybe some ideas for covers (like U2’s cover of “Instant Karma” that I mentioned last week) are best left exclusively to the imagination.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #184

[I make a comment below in italics -- GK]

[Guest Blogger Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Chris Claremont’s X-Men run. For more in this series, see the toolbar on the right.]

Uncanny X-Men, The #184

“The Past of Future Days”

It’s probably no coincidence that, during the John Byrne tour de force of “Days of Future Past,” the year 1984 is a key date in the dystopian chronology laid out by Kate Pryde. It is and will probably always be the emblematic year for dystopian futures thanks to George Orwell. (Claremont even acknowledges Orwell explicitly in issue 183.) So Claremont choosing to do a sequel to “Days” when the actual year 1984 came about is surely no surprise. What’s more fortuitous is that James Cameron (to whom Claremont already owes a huge debt for the influence of “Aliens” upon the Brood) made a movie in 1984 all about a future where robots take over and both humans and robots head back in time to change destiny.

This confluence of serendipitous chronologies leads to “The Past of Future Days,” a scattered, schizophrenic X-Men story that falls rather shockingly below par given the tight cohesiveness of the previous issue. This is an era for X-Men that sees Claremont very much abandoning traditionally structured storytelling. Perhaps still intimidated by the shadow of his great accomplishments on the series, Claremont is deliberately pre-empting any weight of expectation to live up to something like “The Dark Phoenix Saga,” or even the more recent masterpiece with Paul Smith eventually to be christened “From the Ashes.” By eschewing any semblance of classical structure for a much messier narrative style, he forces readers to abandon any preconceived expectations and to simply surrender to the bizarre flow. The tight, laser-beam plotting of the Byrne era had been slowly diffusing anyway in the years since Byrne departed. It’s right at around Uncanny #184 that the light scatters completely, reflected disco-ball style in several directions at once (appropriate then, that part of this issue is actually set in a disco).

Hence, last issue featured Kitty Pryde packing up and heading to Chicago to visit her dad (a segue into the six-part Kitty Pryde & Wolverine miniseries, which in turn is the reason why neither of those characters appear in Uncanny for the next eight months). It also ended with a cliffhanger involving the return to the X-universe of Selene (who’d first appeared in New Mutants #s 9-11). Meanwhile, New Mutants #18 (contemporaneous with “The Past of Future Days”) opens with Rachel from the “Days of Future Past” arc having just arrived, Terminator-style, in the present. After a long introduction in New Mutants, she disappears only to turn up here, in Uncanny #184, and (apropos of nothing) battle Selene. Meanwhile, a new character called Forge is also introduced -- in one of the most embarrassing debut panels any superhero has had to endure. Honestly, I know it’s almost 25 years old, but a horizontally striped shirt, short shorts and a cane – not to mention the effeminate posture? Surely even in ’84 this looked awful.

Forge, a Native American, is lectured by Naze when we first meet him. “The ancient patterns are being broken, the proper order of things overturned!” says Naze. “The fabric of life itself is unraveling!” This may be an oblique reference to the “Demon Bear” arc in New Mutants 18-20, which focused on Danielle Moonstar, a character that – like Forge and Naze – is a Cheyenne Indian. It’s an oblique reference to something, at any rate, and the Naze thread will not find a proper resolution for over 3 years.

Claremont also makes this issue tie in to the “Dire Wraith war,” the premise of his friend Bill Mantlo’s action-figure-based comic book Rom. As if it all wasn’t overdetermined enough...?

With all this material crammed into the issue, how do the X-Men fit in? Well, four issues from the end as it turns out: That’s when they finally show up. And while it’s great to see them, it certainly raises the question of where Claremont’s mind is at. Up to this point during his tenure, Claremont has always seemed more excited about the X-Men characters he inherited than the ones he created himself. But that focus seems to have shifted now – Uncanny #184 sees Claremont more at home with Forge, Mystique, Valerie Cooper, Rachel and Selene (all original Claremont creations or co-creations) than with the staple Cockrum/Wein characters -- Storm, Colossus, Nightcrawler, etc. – all of whom are shunted aside here, relegated to the role of guest stars in their own comic.

[This idea of an anxiety of influence relationship not with a precursor but with the creators younger self has a big hold on my imagination this week, as I have been thinking a lot about Miller's Batman. I mentioned this in the Spirit post this week -- it is just a coincidence to see it come up here. Something very much worth thinking about.

Also: I like the scattered stuff in this period. It is another aspect of what you can do with a title before it becomes a total commodity: you pick the thing up and you don't know what the hell you are going to get. The overdetermination you are talking about here is genuinely absurd, and kind of awesome in a way only long running comics at big corporations can be.

And as my friend Brady said (I think, and I think I may have mentioned this before) -- how totally CLASSY to have Kitty and Wolverine out of the book for eight months while they go on their own adventure. For all of his outlandish science fiction, Claremont is unwilling to break a fundamental rule of continuity -- a rule that guides far too much at the big comics companies while paradoxically being ignored all the time -- that a person SHOULD NOT BE IN TWO PLACES AT ONCE.]

Comic Geek Speak 550

I was on Comic Geek Speak for 20 minutes last night, talking about the effects of superhero movies on superhero comics. Nothing groundbreaking to the people around here, but I thought I would mention it. I come in right after the 16 minute mark. HERE IS THE LINK.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Two Comic Book Trailers


Stephen Frug hates it so much he cannot even speak. He hates it so much I am on the verge of taking up a collection to make him go to the movie and write a really detailed review of how much he hates it, because from his blog it sounds like he is not going to go anywhere near it. I still hold out cautious optimism, of the sort when you know the relationship you are in will end in tears, but you go ahead and just try to enjoy the time you have left. In this case it is the time between the trailers and the actual movie, though for Stephen Frug, the party ended earlier than that.


The Spirit

I am starting to actually get interested in this. Miller's interest in the Spirit character is odd, because it obviously means a lot to him, but it is far too distant for a mainstream crowd to recognize, and it is even too distant for me to really get hung up on it as an "interpretation" of the character -- in a completely uncritical and lazy way I have already decided this is basically a new Miller character with no connection to Eisner's character, which is perhaps how Miller wants it. I have been thinking a lot about Miller's Batman. I have written extensively about how creators after Miller have lived in the Shadow of his Bat, but how has Millers later career been in the Shadow of that same Bat? What kind of anxiety of influence thing does he have, not with an earlier creator, but with his younger self? Is there any chance that his Spirit movie will be some kind of Batman movie is disguise? Cause that would make me like it. I will go see it in theaters.

John Darnielle's Master of Reality


John Darnielle is the main guy from my favorite band, The Mountain Goats. Recently he wrote a book for Continuum's 33 1/3 series, in which various creative people respond to a single album in a short volume of between 25,000 and 30,000 words (a third the size of my superhero book). These can range from lit-crit-style analysis of lyrics and music journalism to, in Darnielle's case, a novella. The series is masterminded by my editor and friend David Barker, who is a total genius.

Darnielle's book is on Black Sabbath's Master of Reality. The first half takes the form of a journal written by a 16 year old in a psychiatric institute. The second half consists of letters written ten years later from the same kid to the doctor who was in charge of him at the institute. In the first half he is trying to convince the doctors to give him his Black Sabbath tapes back, as it is the only thing that is going to make him feel better; in the second half he tries to explain to the doctor why Black Sabbath matters so much to him, from a more articulate perspective.

Darnielle, in his songs, is a storyteller, most often writing from various fictional personas, so he has no trouble establishing a voice -- here it is a very Catcher-in-the-Rye perspective. The first two "journal entries" consist only of the words "FUCK YOU ALL GO TO HELL." The third begins "I am sitting here writing this, it is 10:30 at night and lights out was half an hour ago (which is stupid by the way) and I am angry I want to kill somebody and that is not a threat so if you write that on my chart all it will do is make me want to kill MYSELF!!! EVEN MORE!!!" Darnielle used to be a nurse and still works with children, so he knows from where he speaks. Surprisingly the most moving part of the novel is its dedication: "to all the children to whom I ever provided care, in the earnest hope that your later lives have brought you the joy, and love, and freedom that was always yours by right".

I initially thought that I wanted a radically more distanced and articulate voice in the second half of the novel, to get a very different perspective on Black Sabbath. But there is something really honest about Darnielle's showing us that the kid's experiences in the psychiatric institute really did harm him just as he said it would, and that he did not grow up to be some total success with no emotional baggage. Ten years later he is still very stuck, working a dead end job. What Darnielle gives us is not a story of success, but one of survival -- because of Black Sabbath and its surprisingly positive message, this kid, who was going to kill himself will survive. That understated strength is the best part of the novel.

My only complaint with the book, and this is really not Darnielle's fault because it was probably never his intention, is that at no point did it make me want to actually listen to Black Sabbath. He does a good job explaining why it matters to this 16 year old, and this 26 year old, but I wanted it to matter to me. It was a different perspective on the album, but I stayed on the outside of that perspective the whole time. I could sympathize but never identify. Darnielle can make strange things matter -- I have a Backstreet Boys album on my iPod because of him -- and I was unfairly looking for that from him this time around.